No better way to get the jump on Halloween than by unearthing a rarely-seen fright delight, 1971's HANDS OF THE RIPPER, now available in a special Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack from the folks at Synapse Films.
Don't let the title fool you – this is a fairly elaborate narrative with enough plot twists and Hitchcockian transference of identities to please even the most highbrow of goth snobs. That said, it is also a Hammer Film – and one filmed post the U.S. ratings systems...so there's enough lurid sexual innuendo and gore galore to satisfy the splatter enthusiast (especially in this first-time ever American uncut edition).
The intense scenario, tantalizingly realized by screenwriter L.W. Davidson, originated from a story by Edward Spencer Shew, concerns the illegitimate daughter of Great Britain's biggest tourist attraction. The picture opens with a posh-garbed toff escaping into a safe-house where his lover attends their baby progeny. Soon it's apparent that the woman's blood-spattered upper-class boyfriend is none other than you-know-who and, literally, in a flash (the gleaming blade heightened by the roaring fireplace), before you can say “Jack be quick,” she is carved into yet another pile of Victorian mincemeat. This Honeymooners episode gone wrong is all being watched with scrutiny by their crib-captive golden-tressed child. From this moment on, every shiny object, every glittery, sparkly thing, sets off the girl's ultra-violent side – a trait due to the inheritance of her infamous pater's bat-shit crazy gene. Vegas fans can only be grateful that she was born forty years before Liberace.
Moving a decade hence, we now see the orphaned Anna (the striking Angharad Rees) working for phony spiritualist Dora Bryan. An embarrassing sham séance takes a turn for the worse when Bryan pimps the young girl to an attending member of Parliament (Derek Godfrey). Before you can say Rees' Pieces, there's more carnage than a GOP Obama roast.
Also sitting in at this event is Dr. John Pritchard (The Forsyte Saga’s wonderful thesp Eric Porter); Pritchard's a progressive medico specializing in the embryonic science of psychology, particularly the you-want-to-fornicate-with-your-daddy rappin’ of Siggy F. He rescues Anna, takes her into his home – and attempts to cure her malady...with horrific results.
Has Anna been irreparably psychologically damaged – or is she possessed? It's science vs. religion that is the underlying theme of this surprisingly complex thriller. But don't let that lofty stuff get in the way of this superb 85-minute Grand Guignol exercise. Not only is the oh-so-innocent-looking Rees conflicted by her parentage; as the body count rises, Pritchard too becomes obsessed. After taking the aforementioned Godfrey into his confidence, the lecherous politician insists on turning the girl over to the authorities; the doctor, a bit of a screwball himself, sloughs off his patient's annoying homicidal tendencies...Regarding Anna's penchant for serial killing, he responds with an icy “...it's worth it!” if it – you know – benefits the world of science, blah-blah-blah...No black and white personality schisms here – it's all gray...in fact, Gray's Anatomy. Anna's maniac button is kinda like ‘Tippi ‘Hedren's in Marnie, but on steroids.
The killings themselves are masterpieces of a demented imagination: staked through a door with a fire poker, jagged mirrors in the throat, hatpins in the eye...I mean, come on – where else are you going to see a dowager impaled by a lorgnette?
As indicated, the violence is tempered with a liberal dose of early 1970s movie sex. The slight albeit beauteous Rees is certainly not your typical bodacious Hammer girl; the fact that she's rather “...modest up there” is even verbalized by an aroused lesbian hooker seconds before the streetwalker is turned into a Jackson Pollock painting (Rees, who is friggin' terrific in this movie, is more akin to another wisp of a Hammer femme: Nike Arrighi in The Devil Rides Out). Other excellent cast members include Jane Merrow, Keith Bell, Norman Bird and Katya Wyeth. In an instance of art imitating life, the real Jack the Ripper was never identified (personally, I think it was Lincoln...never actually assassinated, but gunshot brain damaged to the extent of his having to split people like so many rails). In HANDS OF THE RIPPER, the actor playing the notorious Whitechapel murderer has also been relegated to anonymity, slaying his part uncredited. Pertaining to the former, its cover-up understandable because, as I said, he was our 16th president; but in movie lore...WTF? He owns the opening scene and even has dialogue. This was, after all, a 1970s motion picture, and not a Biograph one-reeler. And, seriously, if “3rd Pub Whore” gets billing (Tallulah Miller) – why not Saucy Jack? Ah, sweet mystery of life...Oh, well...Onward and upward.
The picture looks fantastic, thanks to some outstanding cinematography by Kenneth Talbot. The awesome 19th-century sets, snatched from the life-sized mock-ups built for Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, emboss the Hammer trait of making their rather “modest up there” budgets resemble a major studio super production. The lush music by composer Christopher Gunning is gorgeous – eschewing the expected shock chords for romantic lyricism. I know this might sound outrageous, but, in spite of the on-screen events – HANDS OF THE RIPPER is, in its own way, a very beautiful film and one that, in addition to humans, skewers Victorian mores and hypocrisy. To paraphrase that theater-goer in the bar after watching Springtime for Hitler: “Didja ever think this music was for a movie called HANDS OF THE RIPPER?”(Gunning's score is accessible as an isolated track on the B-D)
The picture did have its share of problems. No one really wanted to do it. Producer Aida Young, who had a smash with Hammer's She and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, eventually took it on – her last Hammer project – “...because I needed the money….It looked like the worst kind of rubbish, but I must say we made it work.” To this, director Peter Sasdy can't be complimented enough. His take on the project is almost like that of a Frank Borzage film; furthermore, Sasdy's expertise at creating atmosphere is pitch-perfect (check out his other dissection of Victoriana – 1970's Taste the Blood of Dracula).
HANDS OF THE RIPPER opened on the bottom half of a double-bill with the more high-profile Twins of Evil. Double-bill indeed – as that vampire flick got the mucho share of hype due not to its formidable lead Peter Cushing but the Playboy tie-in with title real-life sibs, Mary and Madeleine Collinson, who jubilantly bared all for their art (I'm still not sure if the title refers to the ma'ams or...the mamms). If more exploitation evidence is required, the promo for the latter was Which is the Virgin? Which is the Vampire? A trick question if ever there was one.
I saw the pair – one of the last Hammer co-feature releases – in the spring of 1972. Even then, while “dual-ly” impressed with Twins, I stated without equivocation that I preferred the accompanying flick. Knowing that their large audience base would be kids, Universal cut both pictures with less finesse than RIPPER's Anna. Further sections (yeah, sections) were excised for the 1977 network TV broadcast. To make up for the shortened running time, which I surmise to have been the length of one of their 8MM Castle Films, Universal, as was their wont back then, filmed some extraneous footage in Hollywood to tack on at the beginning; it was a ridiculous modern-day recap with shrink Severn Darden discussing this extraordinary case of butchery. He might as well have been talking about Universal's editing department (the studio did a similar hatchet job on Hammer's Phantom of the Opera and Kiss of the Vampire. More ludicrously, they performed some likewise surgery upon Losey's non-Hammer Secret Ceremony, transforming prostitute Elizabeth Taylor into a hat designer! How’s that for downsizing?!). I was thus rightly astounded some 32 years later when I obtained a PAL DVD box set from the now-defunct Australian home video company MRA Entertainment. Twins of Evil, HANDS OF THE RIPPER and a third title, Vampire Circus, encompassed versions I never dreamed existed. I have no doubt that these extended renditions would have been too rough for even an 'X' back then – let alone the 'R' which ended up being affixed to them for the U.S. issues.
Suffice to say that Synapse's B-D/DVD of HANDS OF THE RIPPER utilizes the complete unedited version; however, unlike the MRA discs, which were on the grainy side, the new mastering defines 1080p High Definition in both clarity and color resolution; to call this new transfer a marked improvement would be an understatement.
But there's more, folks. Synapse has produced some special extras for HANDS OF THE RIPPER – the best being a top-notch mini documentary, The Devil's Bloody Plaything: Possessed by Hands of the Ripper, comprising interviews with Sasdy, Merrow, Joe Dante and Hammer authority Wayne Kinsey (sadly, Porter and Rees are now deceased – the actress passing just a year ago; the docu is dedicated to her). The packaging, too, is noteworthy, offering an ebullient graphic Belgian poster with Rees magically-appended to a Jayne Mansfield cleavage, nothing less than an act of bovinity. There's also the U.S. theatrical trailer, TV spots, a still gallery and the audio-only of the Darden nonsense (the picture portion seems to have been lost – a Pyrrhic victory, as you KNOW they'll find that before von Stroheim's complete Greed). What's truly cool about these supplements is the genuine affection that the company put into making them. If only other home vid outfits, whose divvying out of their “it's just a paycheck” B-D/DVD featurette assignments had that kind of dedication and integrity. Trust me, it does make a difference!
In a genre rife with cheesy second-rate horror schlock (especially at this time of the year), Synapse's HANDS OF THE RIPPER is – I gotta say it – a cut above the rest.
HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Color. Blu-ray: Letterboxed [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [DTS-HD MA 2-0]; DVD: [1.66:1 anamorphic]; Mono audio [2-channel Dolby Digital]. CAT # SFD0129. SRP: $29.95.